The Romanticism movement of the 19th century has a lot to answer for when it comes to enduring clichés about Andalucía. Many of the writers who came to Seville and other parts of the region back then – often inspired by writers and artists of the Golden Age in the 16th and 17th centuries – were totally seduced by the heady exoticism of Moorish architecture, bullfighting, bandits, flamenco and sultry gypsy girls fluttering their eyelashes and swishing their skirts. Quite a few who had never even set foot on Andalucían soil were mesmerised simply by the very idea of it and let their imaginations run riot in their writings. We have moved on a bit since then, but those images are still regularly trotted out as being ‘typically Spanish’. It must be very annoying for the Spaniards in the two thirds of Spain not in Andalucía and anyone living in the 21st century really. But, but, but… When you’re actually in Seville, I have to admit it is all a bit intoxicating and sensual and I am always happy just to sink into it for a while – although I enjoy the ultramodern and stylish side of the city just as much. But for now, let’s just indulge ourselves by wallowing in the voluptuous world of opera. The city captured the imaginations of a great many composers too and more than a hundred operas are set in Seville, including Carmen, Don Giovanni, The Barber of Seville, The Force of Destiny and Fidelio. In his wonderful book Andalucía, the late great Michael Jacobs said, “The streets provided a constant human spectacle, and the whole place seemed to many like a living opera: 19th-century travellers were finding on every corner Figaro, Don Giovannni and Carmen.” On a sunny Saturday morning in spring, I joined a walking tour to have a look at a few of the locations that are claimed to be the settings of scenes from some of the most famous operas inspired by the city. At key points along our walk, soprano María José – Marichu for short – Vilches popped up to get us in the mood…
The most popular opera ever written, Carmen has been performed all over the world. The opera starts in the tobacco factory, where Carmen works making cigars. She and another cigarrera are having a fight. A corporal, Don José, is sent in to sort it out and arrests Carmen but she uses her considerable charms to convince him to let her escape. Built in the 18th century, the massive structure is one of the biggest in Spain. Production continued until 1952 and it now houses part of Seville University. At first only men worked there, but this changed at the beginning of the 19th century. Soon thousands women were employed there too, which gave them a level of financial independence – an important factor in the society of the time. The original book was by Prosper Mérimée, who came to Spain in 1830 and was told a story which provided the germ for his novella, written in 1845. Georges Bizet had never been to Spain, let alone Seville, but that did not deter him from composing an opera based on the novella in 1875. The Andalucían passion and vitality caused something of a furore when it was performed in 1879 in Vienna and in 1887 in Madrid but it soon became popular all over the world, and has remained so to this day. Bizet sadly did not live to see its success, as he died soon after its first performance.
We meandered from the tobacco factory through the Murillo Gardens, where the oranges were so ripe they were falling off the trees. In Santa Cruz, the old Jewish quarter, flowers spill over balconies of the whitewashed houses and the scents of jasmine and orange blossom really do waft through the air – depending on the time of year. Elegant tiled courtyards with tinkling fountains are tantalisingly kept out of reach by elaborate wrought-iron gates. Actually, it was another leading light of the Romantic period in Spain, the Marquis of Vega-Inclan, who was responsible for the reconstruction of Santa Cruz, which had become very dilapidated. The aristocrat was an early pioneer of Spanish tourism and recognised the potential of Santa Cruz to attract foreign visitors. We were heading for the Corral del Agua in Santa Cruz, a tavern reputed to feature in the opera. A plaque commemorates these goings on so it must be true, mustn’t it? It is here that Carmen meets the dashing bullfighter Escamillo, who makes a play for her. Don José turns up but is well miffed to see Carmen dancing for the officers and gets into a fight before fleeing with Carmen down the lane. Later in the opera, Don José gets into a fracas with Escamillo, who invites them all to see him in action at the bullring, where the final act takes place. It all kicks off again and Don José stabs Carmen at the gate of the bullring. But only because he loved her so much, obviously. That’a a lot of passion for a Saturday morning.I felt quite exhausted already but now our attentions turned to The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro.
Marichu was singing in the Plaza de Alfaro, where you enter Santa Cruz by the Murillo Gardens. The square is where Rosina, the female protagonist of the operas, lives with her overzealous guardian, Doctor Bartolo, who wants to marry her. We looked up at a balcony and imagined here there, talking to her suitor, the young Count of Almaviva. The Barber of Seville was composed by Rossini in 1816, who based the opera on a play by Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais. He also wrote the continuation of the story, The Marriage of Figaro, which Mozart turned into an opera in 1786. With me so far? None of them ever set foot in Seville, but Beaumarchais did spend time in Madrid, avenging the honour of his sister – don’t ask.
The barber of the title is an ex-servant of Count Almaviva and is trying to help his master get closer to the object of his affection. Much hilarity ensues and after a lot of argybargy, the Count and Rosina get married. Their marriage does not go smoothly, however, which is played out in The Marriage of Figaro.
From the Plaza de Alfaro it is a short stroll to the Plaza de Refinadores, where there is a statue of Don Juan Tenorio, the Don Giovanni of Mozart’s opera.One of the great legendary figures, the lothario Don Juan is claimed to have had more than 1,000 lovers.
No one really knows if he was ever a real person but the character has featured in numerous stories over the centuries by authors including Tirso de Molina, Zorrilla and Mérimée – not to mention all the films. Mozart’s version was first performed in 1787 and has been in production somewhere in the world ever since. Here in Seville it is staged every year.
We walked along to the Plaza de Doña Elvira, where the character of the Commendatore – whose daughter, Anna, Don Juan/Giovanni is trying to seduce – is claimed to have lived. Elvira is his most determined lover, who pursues him throughout the opera. Nearby in the Plaza de los Venerables, there is a plaque supposedly marking the place where he was born. La Hostería del Laurel, on the same square, also features as a meeting place in the story. José Zorrilla apparently stayed there in the mid 19th century while writing his play Don Juan Tenorio.
I’m sure you could find a reference to one opera or another on every corner of the city if you put your mind to it, but it might well take years. Meanwhile, you could just do as I did and take the Seville, Opera City tour, which is just one of the interesting routes offered by Sevilla Official Tours
There is more information about operas on the Seville tourism website. You can also pick up an opera map marking out different routes at the tourist office and key sites are signposted around the city. There is a Sevilla City of Opera app too.
Opera is performed in Seville at the Teatro de la Maestranza Tosca is on in June. The Barber of Seville will feature in the programme of the summer opera festival and will run at the Maestranza in early 2016 to commemorate its 200th anniversary.
For something more low key, Sevilla de Ópera in the Arenal market offers the chance to see highlights of operas at reasonable prices (€25 or €45 including dinner).
Getting there British Airways has just launched a flight to Seville from London Gatwick with one-way fares from £42. What are you waiting for?
Where to stay The Fontecruz has 40 pretty rooms around an elegant courtyard and has a very welcome outdoor pool. It is in a handy location with the cathedral and Santa Cruz on the doorstep. Staff are really helpful too. Double rooms from €100. The Adriano is a family-run, traditional hotel with friendly staff in a handy location right in the centre. It is worth getting one of the larger superior rooms with a balcony. Double rooms from €65.